The government no longer explodes atomic bombs at the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site. But there are plenty of classified projects still under way out there and a sister facility we know well as Area 51. And now there’s a new high tech security team to protect the government secrets. Three cutting-edge robots are prowling the site guarding unknown classified technology, it seems George Knapp asked the obvious question, don’t the test site folks watch enough movies to know how this will turn out?
Humans have long been waiting for the day when robot servants will cater to our every whim. Movies and TV portray them as oh so helpful, always ready to assist their human overlords.
And it’s in this spirit of optimism, some might say naivete, that technical whiz bangs working for the Nevada National Security Site, formerly known as the Nevada Test Site, have unleashed the MDARS — short for Mobile Detection Assessment Response System. Call them what you want. They are robots, and they’re now on the job patrolling sensitive parts of this sprawling desert facility.
“That it thinks on its own, and in that regard, is so that it doesn’t require this constant human intervention,” NNSS Senior Engineer Stephen Scott said.
Scott beams like a proud new papa in describing his mechanical babies, whose first assignment is to patrol the perimeter of a radioactive waste facility at the test site. They are expensive, more than $2 million for the first three. But the government says they’ll save a lot of money in the long run, in part by freeing up humans to do other things
“They’re like a dog like I had in Oklahoma on our farm. You give it its boundaries, and this is your area of responsibility, and take care of us. And that’s how they operate. It’s just kind of an electronic dog.”
Make that dogs, plural, because like ferocious wolves, these robots can operate in tandem, or should we say hunt in packs, aware of each other, aware of themselves.
Self awareness, as we recall, didn’t work out so well in the first “Terminator” movie.
“And that’s right here. This is your true brains behind the whole unit is inside of this little box here,” Scott said.
“There’s essentially four computers running inside of there to be able to handle everything.”
Four computers to handle everything, including homo sapiens, which is exactly what the MDARS were designed to do — designed presumably in a spooky lab at General Dynamics. In just three years, the company took this from an idea to operational status. Impressive, even to skeptics who remember the prototypes in “Robocop.”
MDARS can patrol areas too large for fences, too contaminated for people. They run at 20 miles an hour, detect movement of any kind in a 1,200-meter radius, but differentiate between people and say birds. Day or night using radar, infrared, audio and video capabilities, they can check locks and gates for signs of tampering, cruise around looking for trouble or lurk in the dark waiting for intruders. And there have been many at the test site over the decades – protesters, trespassers, even spies. The bots might also come in handy if you had say, a non-existent military base that attracts flying saucer hunters assistants for the beleaguered camo dudes. As a demonstration, Scott put his kids up against a special ops team.
“And we threw our red team guys against it, sneaking across the desert. And it was picking them up out there about a half a mile out, and nailing them right there. If you come on here, there’s a high probability we will find you.”
Example: when a large man wearing a camouflage red shirt hid behind a telephone pole, it was Domo arigato for Mr. Roboto.
Intruder, stop. Stop and be identified.
Don’t shoot evil robot. And that man was never seen again. We kid, because the Department of Energy assures us its robots are not armed. Sort of like Nevada’s peace-loving Predator drones were not armed before anyone attached those Sidewinder missiles.
While these fellows bear a striking resemblance to the lovable imps in “Short Circuit,” there is one factoid to keep in mind.
George Knapp: “They’re autonomous or semi-autonomous. You have seen Terminator, right? You know what Skynet means?”
Stephen Scott: “Yes, sir. No, there’s no chance of that happening here, sir.”
Knapp: “You’re positive?”
Scott: “Yes, sir. I’m absolutely positive.”
Knapp: “And Transformers? You know about that?”
Scott: “Yes, sir. We do. No, sir. We’re not to that point yet.”
When we asked the Department of Energy if the MDARS will be equipped with something benign, like a laser, we didn’t exactly hear them say no. Let’s see robot laser. What does that bring to mind?
Scott says the U.S. Army has its own version of MDARS robots, and that it’s likely those machines have been weaponized. The Army says robots will never replace human soldiers, but are like a force multiplier.
At present. The Nevada robots are guarding a location known as Area 5, but may also be deployed to other unspecified areas in the near future.